Today we met Paul Waters, revealing some personal history and writing about 1950s Ireland.
What motivates you to write?
I’ve always liked telling stories. I used to make up stories for my sisters and brother in the back of the car on long drives, and later for my children. It was different when I was a reporter for newspapers and for the BBC, especially back in Northern Ireland where I grew up. Part of the reason I did those jobs was to help tell other people’s stories and give them a platform to communicate. I come from a place riven by suspicion and division, and hoped that a bit more communication and mutual understanding could help. Of course a journalist is one of the last people many people trust at the best of times to tell their story straight, and when you add in political and religious factors, it was sometimes tricky.
The shift from telling other people’s stories to writing my own was difficult for me. I was happy championing other people’s right to share their experiences, but assuming that readers would be interested in my own thoughts seemed presumptuous. Arrogant even. But here we are. I clearly got over it. And what helped me was the realisation that I had some really good stories, partly based on gossip handed down inside the family, about events that had never been fully recorded by history. Without giving too much away, the earlier generations of the family were involved in some very dark, some very funny and some very significant episodes, occasionally outside the law and occasionally involving royals. (That’s a photo of my sword-carrying great uncle Mike escorting then then Princess Elizabeth during a trip to Belfast.) These stories were too good to let wither and fade, but too risky to divulge without being cloaked in fiction. I had to write them.
Which do you like to write, series or standalones? If you write both, what do you find the difference?
I’m mainly writing a series, based around a maverick police officer called Jolly Macken. He has a twisted family background and straddles the divided society of 1950s Ireland. As a member of the then police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, he has a toe on the side of the ruling class. But as a Catholic, he’s viewed as a potential infiltrator by his mainly Protestant colleagues, and to some extent as a traitor by the Catholic community from which he comes. So his grip on and loyalty to either side is precarious. But life and love and crime go on. And that’s far too much to cram into one book. I have big plans for Macken and a series means there’ll be time and space to explore them. Writing a series means that loose ends become links to the future. In the shorter standalones I’ve written, everything is satisfactorily resolved. And that’s fun too. But a series gives me the opportunity to reward readers who stick with Macken, with references back and forth between different stages of his life.
What do you like to do to relax when not writing?
When I’m not writing (which is far too often), I read voraciously. I love books. And when I’m neither writing nor reading, I love talking about them. That’s why I enjoy doing the We’d Like A Word podcast so much. I co-present it with fellow author Stevyn Colgan. It’s goes out every other Wednesday. We get to hear from some very talented, funny and humane fiction and non-fiction authors, poets, publishers, editors and other people in the book business – including bestselling big names, award-winners and newbies, from Europe, Africa, Asia and America.
I learn a lot. We laugh a lot. And I’m occasionally shocked – I remember a revelation from Anthony Horowitz that stunned me. (But you’ll have to listen to that episode to hear it yourself.) It takes me outside my comfort zone and introduces me to subjects and writers I’d otherwise never encounter.
You can find We’d Like A Word wherever you usually get your podcasts, though its host platform is Anchor. And the website is www.wedlikeaword.com We love getting comments, questions and suggestions for guests from listeners.
Who are your favourite and least favourite of your characters, why and in which books do they appear?
This is a hard one. I have been accused of not treating my characters very kindly – both in what I put them through and in what I make them do. The good guys face sticky situations and moral dilemmas. And I sometimes can’t stop myself warming to the character I initially had pegged as an out-and-out bad ’un.
It’s not that I’m necessarily seduced by the charismatic baddie. It’s more that characters evolve and become more complex as I write the book. At the moment, my favourite character is a brutally pragmatic and prejudiced police sergeant called Gracey. He used to be my least favourite. I named Gracey after someone I really was not keen on and like his real namesake, he initially appears to be lacking in any kind of graciousness. However, he does have a sense of humour and he grew on me. And as in real life, few people are as good or as bad as they at first seem. I’ll say no more. You can meet himself yourself in the pages of Blackwatertown.
Tell us about your last book…
My most recent book is a historical crime thriller called Blackwatertown. The legendary thriller writer, Frederick Forsyth, said it was “extremely intriguing with intricate twists and turns.”
Here’s the gist of the story: When maverick police sergeant Jolly Macken is banished to the sleepy 1950s Irish border village of Blackwatertown, he vows to find the killer of his brother – even if the murderer is inside the police. But a lot can happen in a week. Over seven days Macken falls in love, uncovers dark family secrets, accidentally starts a war and is hailed a hero and branded a traitor. When Blackwatertown explodes into violence, who can he trust? And is betrayal the only way to survive?
I was not around in the 1950s myself, but I had family who were involved in conflict and other dark events back then. Jolly Macken is a Catholic in what was then an overwhelmingly Protestant police force – which makes him suspect to his fellow officers and isolated from his own nationalist community. He doesn’t really belong anywhere. The story is loosely based on true stories of cockup and conspiracy handed down that never made it into the official record. But it’s fiction. And the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
What’s coming next…
Writing a book must be one of the most effective ways to delay gratification. You write, rewrite, edit, edit, edit and then wait and wait for publication. But since Blackwatertown was published, I’ve felt privileged and relieved that readers have enjoyed it and asked to read more. I’m writing the sequel, which will be set in both north America and Ireland.
Anything else you want to share?
Two things. The first is that one of the weirdest parts of Blackwatertown being published was the creation of the audiobook version. Some people suggested I narrate it myself. Not a completely crazy idea, because I’ve worked in broadcasting and I can make a stab at a Northern Ireland accent. However, truth be told, my Belfast accent has softened from years living in Dublin and elsewhere in the world.
But the publisher, WF Howes, had other ideas anyway. They got Irish actor Patrick Moy to narrate my book. He has a great track record of narrating audiobooks, including two by Hilary Mantel. And I now understand that reading aloud for a little while is nothing like the challenge of recording a full unabridged novel – getting the words, the accents, the different characters consistently right and engaging for eleven hours or more.
More appealing than that though, is the opportunity to have another creative person put their interpretation on your work. Maybe a bit like a playwright goes through with a theatre director, or a screenplay writer with a film director. It felt odd at first hearing someone else’s voice instead of the one inside my head. But I was also enthralled to hear how he told the story – my story – and how it coincided or subtly diverged from what I intended, or what I thought I’d written. He did a great job.
The second thing is to say thanks to Gail for this opportunity to reach you, her readers. Gail will already know how hard it is catch the attention of potential readers with so much else going on.
Publishing and marketing new books is not easy during the pandemic. I love bookshops, especially the ones that have been stocking Blackwatertown. But I’m also very grateful to the delis, beer shops and hardware stores that have been selling copies of Blackwatertown along with their essentials, while bookshops have been closed. So, thank you, Gail, for sharing your platform.
Paul Waters is the author of Blackwatertown and co-presents We’d Like A Word, (runner-up 2020 Books Podcast of the Year, London Book Fair). Paul grew up in Belfast during “the Troubles” and became an award-winning BBC producer. His claim to fame is making Pelé his dinner. But Paul has covered politics in America, sport in South Africa, gone undercover in Zimbabwe, conducted football crowds, and smuggled a satellite dish into Cuba. He’s also busked, driven a cab, organised music festivals, taught in Poland, presented podcasts for Germans and been a night club cook in New York. He lives in Buckinghamshire.
Thank you Paul. You’re right, it is hard to reach readers, but I’m sure with Blackwatertown, and it’s upcoming sequel that you’ll be found by a lot of new readers.
Up tomorrow we’ll be meeting Phillipa East